FC Cologne
RB Leipzig
11:30 AM UTC
Game Details

Rohr's rookies impress... mostly... in rejigged Nigeria side

If there were those who felt a bit underwhelmed about the Super Eagles' third place finish at the Africa Cup of Nations - and there were more than a few - watching the side against the Ukraine on Tuesday would have boosted the spirits.

Gernot Rohr's refreshed team buzz their way close to nearly embarrassing Euro qualifying Group G leaders Ukraine in front of their home fans, and the 2-2 draw would have felt like a welcome breath of fresh air.

For the first 45 minutes in Dnipro, Nigerians would have been forgiven for thinking they had been whipped back in time to the '90s, watching Clemens Westerhof's Super Eagles fizz, entertain and strike. And this was not even Nigeria's first team.

Debutant Joe Aribo, who has been on a scoring run for Glasgow Rangers, was handed a first start and continued his fine form. He opened the scoring within five minutes to become the 60th player to score for Nigeria in their first game. He came close to a second not long after, only to see his diving header desperately palmed away by Andriy Lunin.

But there were a number of other questions for Rohr and his squad to answer post Afcon, and boy did they answer them.

Coping with retirements

Two high-profile retirements, a couple of deserved cuts and a bunch of injuries meant that Nigeria came into the game with just 14 of the 23 players from their Afcon bronze-winning campaign.

This was a time to see how the team, with a number of potential WAFU Cup of Nations candidates, would cope without its bulwarks.

Semi Ajayi replaced Kenneth Omeruo at centre back. Aribo started in midfield in the absence of Wilfred Ndidi, and Victor Osimhen expectedly took the place of the recently retired Odion Ighalo. Samuel Kalu, who barely featured at Afcon, started ahead of Moses Simon in the absence of Ahmed Musa.

In what was a pleasantly surprising twist, the new-look Eagles proceeded to play football at such a pace and level that veteran fans harkened to those good old days of watching the Super Eagles. They completely dominated Ukraine in that first half, even the home side would have been left wondering how it was not a rout and game over at halftime.

Rookies were just OK....

Rohr's squad had true rookies in forward Joshua Maja, goalkeeper Maduka Okoye and midfielder Aribo. And then there were returnees trying for a comeback, like Ajayi, Dennis Bonaventure, Bryan Idowu and the more long term absentee Anderson Esiti.

There was no question which of those was the biggest winner on the night, as mentioned before. A buzzing performance capped by one goal, a near miss and general dynamism all but confirmed Aribo's place in the next and possibly future squads.

Nigeria needed a replacement for John Obi Mikel, and Aribo stepped in in a big way. He brought just the energy and dynamic play that he told ESPN he would, and while his penchant for barreling forward left Oghenekaro Etebo with defensive holes to cover at the back, the return of Ndidi should provide answers to those defensive questions.

Of the others, Maja barely got enough minutes to make an impression. Okoye never got a chance. And only Bonaventure really did good things in the limited minutes he had, showing his ability with a cut inside two defenders and curling a ball that could have nestled in the net with a little more power.

Esiti did himself no favours and for a man whose debut performance under the late Stephen Keshi left fans wowed, his error-strewn display would have served as a reminder to the likes of Aribo that one swallow does not a summer make.

Lost in the shuffle, or top of the pack?

With so many players out, this first game post-Afcon was always going to be a pointer to what direction Rohr wanted to go in terms of personnel and the squad's depth chart.

His starting XI provided valuable insight. The first being that his policy of favouring players with regular and high starting minutes remain unchanged.

That meant Ajayi ahead of Leon Balogun and Chidozie Awaziem as defensive partner for William Troost-Ekong in Omeruo's absence. It also seemingly gave Aribo the edge over Esiti, Kalu over Simon and Osimhen over Paul Onuachu.

There were also significant internal battles across all areas of the pitch. By the time the night was over, a few of those little wars had been settled.

With a Okoye-sized fire under his behind, Francis Uzoho came up big in the goalkeeping spot. So much so that there were those on social media asking why he was not starting at the Nations Cup... fans who conveniently forgot that it was they who hounded him out after that error against Seychelles, but what's a bit of selective myopia?

Three great stops, included a strong one-handed save that Vincent Enyeama would have applauded from his couch at home, must surely have restored him as undisputed numero uno.

For all his competence at the back, Ajayi will still have a battle to dislodge either of Omeruo or Ekong, or even the gradually advancing Awaziem. But it is clear he is on his way, and he pushed Balogun further down that depth chart.

Kalu totally purred like a revved up luxury car after getting the nod ahead of Simon. The Nantes man was below his usual high standards when he did come on and Chukwueze's decision-making in the final third needs work. Which suggests that with a full squad, the wide forwards are very likely to be Ahmed Musa and Kalu.

Lille's Osimhen, with his pace, link up play, and strength for one still so slight and wiry of frame, clearly won the number 9 battle, capping it with an expertly-drilled penalty kick. And he could probably have scored one or two more if Chukwueze had been less selfish in front of goal.

Rohr however, stuck true to form, keeping his rookies mostly away from the action, only throwing a couple on with barely enough time to remove their tracksuits.

The criticism of the coach will continue in bits, but it is obvious that it was the right decision to keep him in charge after Afcon.


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